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'Scream Rooms' Violate Children’s Rights, Behavior Consultant Says

An elementary school has come under fire in Connecticut for using seclusionary time-out rooms as a method of discipline.

By Melissa L. Olive, Ph.D, BCBA-D

An elementary school has come under fire in Connecticut for using “scream rooms” as a method of discipline. If you haven’t heard, you may learn more about it here, here, and here.

What is a Scream Room

According to reports, parents described the rooms as 6-by-4-foot spaces with concrete walls used to isolate students with special needs who are disruptive in the classroom. As best as we can tell, scream rooms is simply another name for a time-out room or more specifically, a seclusionary time out room.

So what is a time-out room? Let us first define time-out.

  • A time-out is a period of time when opportunities to access reinforcement are prevented.
  • Most people think of a time-out as sitting in a chair and not being able to play.
  • Time-out may also be missing recess for 5 minutes.
  • Time-out may also include losing TV time after dinner.

Time-out may be administered within a classroom so that the student does not lose instructional time. For example, the child may be asked to sit at the back of the class where she can still hear instruction but where she may not interact with others. This type of time-out is called inclusionary time out.

Seclusionary time-out is when the student is removed from the instructional setting and placed in isolation so that minimal or no interaction with others is allowed.

Thus, a time-out room or a seclusionary time-out room is a room where someone might go so that no other forms of reinforcement may be accessed (e.g., no social interaction, no music, no toys).

What is the Purpose of a Scream Room or Time Out Room?

Historically, time-out has been used as a consequence to challenging or disruptive behavior as a type of punishment. The underlying philosophy is that if the child is engaging in behavior to gain attention, placing the child in isolation for brief periods of time immediately after the challenging or disruptive behavior will teach the child that acting out will not result in attention.

While this method has been supported with substantial research, the technique is often used incorrectly. Before a time-out may be planned as part of an intervention for a student, a behavior analyst must first assess the behavior and determine why the child is misbehaving. This is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment and we have talked about it here, here, and here.

Once the assessment is completed, an intervention is developed based on the assessment results. If the child engaged in challenging behavior to gain attention, a time-out from attention following challenging behavior may be part of the behavior plan. If the child engaged in the challenging behavior to gain access to preferred items such as computer time or television time, then a time-out from computers or television following challenging behavior may be part of the plan. If a child is engaging in challenging behavior as a way to get out of non-preferred activities such as school work or home work, time-out from school work would be inappropriate and ineffective.

When time-out is used as part of a treatment plan, its use must be carefully monitored with data collection and ongoing analysis to verify if the intervention is working as planned. All staff who use time-out as part of a treatment plan must be trained to use the procedure. Additionally, the time-out procedure must be supervised to ensure that staff are implementing it correctly.

Sadly, it does not appear that time-out is being used in this way in this particular school. Based on the reports we have read, it seems as if staff sent children to these rooms to “calm down.” Based on the reports we have read, staff were not following carefully developed behavior plans. Instead, teachers appeared to be sending children to these rooms when teachers became frustrated with student behavior.

Rules for Restraint and Time-Out

Currently, no federal legislation exists preventing schools from using seclusionary time-out or time-out rooms. However, federal legislation has been proposed. We used Wright’s Law (a helpful website for parents and teachers alike) to find additional information about seclusionary time-out rules in each state. Many states have specific rules so parents, teachers, and behavior analysts should become familiar with the rules in their states.

These states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.

Connecticut has specific rules regarding the use of seclusionary time-out. You may read the rules here.

The rule states that “no provider shall involuntarily place a person at risk in seclusion (there are two exceptions). This means that a child may not be placed there against his/her will (with those exceptions).

The state went on to define seclusion as the confinement of a person in a room, whether alone or with staff supervision, in a manner that prevents the person from leaving.

Seclusion may be used in an emergency. But remember, an emergency does not happen daily as described in these news reports. The rules also state that if seclusion is used, “it must be part of the IEP of that person AND that other less restrictive, positive behavior interventions appropriate to the behavior exhibited by the person at risk have been implemented but were ineffective.”

The rules also state that if seclusion as a behavior intervention is repeated more than two times in any school quarter, the IEP team must meet to review the use of seclusion, consider additional evaluations or assessments, and may even revise the child’s IEP.

Most importantly, when a student is placed in seclusion, school staff must attempt to notify the parents on the same day or within 24 hours. They may use phone, email, or a note home. Parents must receive a copy of the incident report within two days. The state even provides a sample of the incident report form that could be used.

And finally, the rule states that any staff who uses seclusion must be trained in that technique.

Please note that this rule applies only to students who have an IEP. Students who do not have identified disabilities do not have the same rights.

What Should Parents Do to Prevent the Use of Scream Rooms/Time-Out Rooms?

If your child does not have a disability, then you should meet with your principal to discuss the use of such procedures. Again, your child does not have the same rights as children with IEPs.

If your child has an IEP, then you should:

  1. Learn your state’s rules about seclusionary time-out
  2. Review your child’s IEP to be certain that it does not include seclusionary time out
  3. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, you should request the IEP team to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment

We hope that none of your children have experienced these rooms. We also hope that we have helped you prevent the use of these rooms on your child.

Melissa L. Olive, Ph.D, BCBA-D, is a behavioral consultant at Applied Behavioral Strategies, New Haven. See http://appliedbehavioralstrategies.com or e-mail missy@appliedbehavioralstrategies.com.

carlo January 14, 2012 at 09:05 PM
This is what happens when the inmates start running the asylum. I really doubt this expert knows what it's like to deal with kids like this. Books can't prepare you for it.

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